KnudÅge Riisager by Claus Røllum-Larsen
Knudåge Riisager was born on 6th March 1897 in Port Kunda, Estonia, where his father had built and at that time managed a cement factory. On the death of F.L. Smidth in 1899 Riisager's father was called home to work in Copenhagen for F.L. Smidth Company, and the family then moved to Frederiksberg, where Riisager lived for the rest of his life. After his school leaving exam in 1915 he began studying political science at the University of Copenhagen, and in 1921 he took the cand. polit. degree. From 1925 until 1950 he worked as a civil servant - for the last eleven years as a Departmental Head in the Ministry of Finance. Knudåge Riisager died on 26th December 1974.
Alongside this straightforward administrative career Riisager was prolifically active as a composer, music writer and organizer. He had his first training in theory and composition from Otto Malling, and after the latter's death in 1915 from Peder Gram. It was a study trip to Paris in 1923 that were to open the young composer's eyes in earnest to the new currents in contemporary music. In Paris Riisager became a pupil of Albert Roussel and Paul Le Flem, and the French influence can be clearly felt in his compositions from the mid-1920s. While the works of the years up to 1921 have a Nordic, lyrical, sometimes Carl Nielsenesque tone, the compositions of the years up to the mid-thirties show the influence not only of the Frenchmen Roussel and Satie, but also of Proko-fiev, Honegger, Bartók, and not least Stra-vinsky. Riisager's highly personal style is already evident in the works of these years, as expressed for example by the almost provocative use of dissonant seconds, his fondness for bitonality, the humorous element of sheer music--making, and especially Riis-ager's own distinctive attitude to orchestral setting.
This whole development can be heard in works like the Overture for Erasmus Montanus and Songs to texts by Sigbjørn Obstfelder, both from c. 1920, Suite dionysiaque from 1924, as well as Variations on a Theme of Mezangeau and T-Doxc. Poème mécanique, both from 1926. The last of these works, subtitled Jabiru, mechanical poetry, is a musical portrait of what was then a brand-new Japanese aeroplane type. The work is quite in the spirit of the ‘machine music' of the period and as such a fine example of the young composer's international orientation and will to experiment.
By 1928 Riisager had begun his collaboration with the ballet at the Royal Theatre; that year he composed the music for Elna Jørgen-Jensen's ballet Benzin (Petrol) with stage designs by Robert Storm Petersen. The premiere of this work, as far its reception was concerned, must be described as a resounding flop, and when it appeared in 1930 it only managed a total of three performances. At the end of the 1930s Riisager resumed his work as a ballet composer, supplying the music for Børge Ralov's Hans Christian Andersen ballet Tolv med Posten (Twelve by the Mail). But this was not premiered at the Royal Theatre until 1942, incidentally together with Harald Lander's Slaraf-fenland (Fool's Paradise) and Qarrtsiluni - also with Riisager's music. Although he composed a number of significant works in the thirties and forties, it was very much these ballet scores that established Riisager's name with the general public as one of the leading composers of his generation.
And for the next few years, too, ballet music was to be Riisager's most prominent field of work. In 1945 he completed the music for Lander's Fugl Fønix (The Phoenix), and in 1947 he reworked and scored a selection of Carl Czerny's piano etudes into his and -Harald Lander's ballet Etude (later called Etudes). With this work in particular -Riisager won international recognition, and although there are precedents for the use of orchestrated piano pieces as ballet music (for example Ottorino Respighi's La Boutique -fantasque (1919)), the combination of the piano etudes and the technical progression of the dance steps has a special dimension which is precisely the point of the work as a whole.
In the 1920s Riisager had been one of the most active champions of the performance of contemporary music in Copenhagen, and was thus one of the founders of Unge Tonekunst-neres Selskab (the Society of Young Composers) (chairman 1922-24) and a member of the judging committee of the society Foreningen ‘Ny Musik'. Finally, in 1937, he became the chairman of Dansk Komponistforening (the Association of Danish Composers) - a post he kept for 25 years.
Riisager's great initiative and his talent for identifying and solving problems made him an obvious candidate for membership of innumerable society boards, committees, councils etc. not only in Denmark but also outside the country. And as we have seen, alongside these activities he kept up his work at the Ministry until 1950, when he retired as Head of Department. But Riisager refused to rest on his laurels as a senior citizen, so in 1956 he took up the challenge of becoming director of the Royal Academy of Music in Copenhagen. This is quite thought-provoking, since he had never himself attended the institution. And in fact as director he devoted himself to the administrative work and never taught in the eleven years he was at the Academy.
After finishing Etude Riisager went to work on his only opera, the one-acter Susanne, to a libretto by his close friend Mogens Lorentzen. It was no great success: it only saw 17 performances, and when it was revived in 1957 - for Riisager's sixtieth birthday - it was only on stage six times. Several major works now followed, including a concerto for the violin virtuoso Wandy Tworek, but as before it was to be ballet music that brought Riisager success. In the fifties his compositions included two ballet scores for the -Swedish choreographer Birgit Cullberg: Månerenen (Moon Reindeer), premiered at the Royal Theatre in 1957, and Fruen fra Havet (The Lady From The Sea), first performed at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York in 1960. Worth singling out from Riisager's last ten years are Sangen om det uendelige (The Song of the Infinite) from 1964 to a text by the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi, and the orchestral works Trittico from 1971 and To Apollo, composed in 1972.
Knudåge Riisager combined a full-time job as a civil servant with extensive activities as a composer, and besides making an important contribution to many of the organizations of the musical world he was an extremely prolific writer; in his younger years especially in music articles, but later as an essayist, as is evident for example from the fine books Tanker i tiden (Thoughts in Time) (1952) and Det usynlige mønster (The Invisible Pattern) (1957). In these lucidly formulated literary works, too, we experience Knudåge Riisager as a cultural personality with thorough training in the humanities and a broad cultural perspective.
As a composer Riisager had no pupils or successors, but with his unmistakable personal tone he succeeded in enriching Danish music with an extra dimension of spirituality and pithiness.
Riisager's earliest major orchestral work is Overture for Erasmus Montanus op. 1, which was composed in the years c. 1918-1920. Quite naturally he sent the work in to the music society Dansk Koncert-Forening - the forum of the time for new Danish orchestral music - with a view to performance, but he was told it was unplayable. It was therefore a great pleasure to him that the Swedish composer and conductor Ture Rangström offered to give the work its first performance at the Concert Hall in Gothenburg on 15th October 1924.
It is difficult to assess what in the overture was the specific reason for the rejection of the work by Dansk Koncert-Forening. We do not know the original form in which it was submitted; at the very least, it is rather surprising that Peder Gram, who was Riisager's theory teacher, and at the time in question a conductor in the society, did not take the work under his wing, and for example ensure that the passages considered unplayable were reworked. The overture is such a well written and mature work that it had every possible claim to be played. But it must be remembered that later, in May 1924 - probably with a view to the performance of the overture in Gothenburg - Riisager himself was prompted to re-orchestrate it, perhaps against the background of his study trip to Paris and what he had learned from the teaching there.
Riisager's interest in the works of the Danish playwright Ludvig Holberg had been aroused as early as his grammar school days at the school Henrik Madsens Skole (the later Skt. Jørgens Gymnasium), where he had the highly respected Holberg scholar Th.A. Müller as his teacher. It was Müller's teaching that inspired him to compose this work. At the front, in the autograph to the overture, Riisager has given two accounts of the work; they have both been crossed out, but the second follows here:
"The overture is an introduction to Holberg's ‘Erasmus Montanus'. It offers no real description of characters or action in the play, but is intended as a musical representation of the spirit of the comedy. In the peaceful rural environment, Erasmus storms and rages."
The overture is arranged in four parts. The introduction seems to conjure up a nature idyll with its pentatonically-coloured oboe theme, which is answered by the flute and piccolo and the hunting notes of the horns. The last of these are developed further in the clarinet and flute. The development is played out over a carpet of sound consisting of a triad in the strings with harmonics in the first violins and with descending pizzicato notes in the double-basses. A little later, an expansive melody is introduced in the strings. It is played on the G-string, and gradually the rest of the orchestra enters. After a culmination where the string melody is played by the trumpets, a diminuendo leads into a short passage in the clarinets and bassoons with a simple melody that winds around an ascending fifth, and finally a string passage takes us back to the solo parts in horns and woodwinds.
After this the main section sets in - one hesitates to call it the first subject, since it is not followed by a second subject. Nor is there really any first subject, only a number of short melodic sequences that are developed and combined without forming any major thematic units. As an introduction to and a transition between several of the short -thematic sections we hear whirling string passages, but later the motivic development is intensified towards the conclusion of the main section, where the music has modulated to the subdominant key of C major. Now begins a kind of development section where material from the first section is reworked in the woodwinds. The fun and games reach a climax when the trombones deliver a droll passage with glissandi. But shortly afterwards the scene shifts. We are now in a hall, where a minuet is being danced. The scene has a stylized feel and an effect in the context that may recall the Allegretto mosso con grazia (quasi menuetto) part of Liszt's symphonic poem Tasso: lamento e trionfo (1847-1854). While Liszt's minuet theme is meant to allude to the court of Ferrara, Riisager's relates directly to Holberg's Erasmus. Riisager has himself stated: "But perhaps his love of Lisbed and his pathetic lack of consistency really mean that his heart is touched, and it is a valuable shift that takes place in him - triumphing over his doctrinarianism. This element of grace is hinted at by the little minuet theme." After this short intermezzo follows a resumption of the main section. Later comes an elevated, hymn-like section that is interrupted by fast string runs that lead in to the coda, where a few frisky figures in the woodwinds have reminiscences of the minuet section, after which the piece is brought to a close.
The overture is fresh and energetic in expression and radiates a certain brilliance based partly on the clearly arranged progression with strong formal sections and the straightforwardness that is sensed in the motivic treatment, and which also comes out in the instrumentation. The overture soon became one of Riisager's most popular works in the concert hall. As far as we know, it was only used a few times as an actual overture to Holberg's comedy: at the gala performance to mark the Aarhus -Theatre's 25th anniversary in 1925 and in a number of performances at the Royal Danish Theatre in 1947. As a curiosity it can be mentioned that the Aarhus performance gave rise to a rather acerbic review in Aarhusposten, which said among other things that it "was not easy to understand. It was a mixture of cock-crowing, bull-roaring, rattling boxes of nails and a car horn with a bad cold", while Demokraten considered that the overture "was a euphonious and ear-pleasing, but undeniably hypermodern -composition."
From the autograph to the overture Fastelavn (Carnival) (1930) we know that Riisager originally had an idea that this work as well as the Overture for Erasmus Montanus, the overture Klods Hans (Jack the Dullard) (1929) and the "prelude to a Danish comedy", -Comoedie (1930), were to make up a series of orchestral pieces entitled "Danish Pictures". It was decided that this first recording of these four works would refer to that overall title, although Riisager himself did not retain it later. On the CD the last two of these works have changed places.
A characteristic shared by the compositions is the equilibristic orchestral style which humorously and entertainingly conjures up situations and moods. They are works that fully demonstrate Riisager's status as the playful musical child that he presumably wished to be, and they testify to his pleasure in using the possibilities of the orchestra with among other things plentiful use of solo passages. In these orchestral works one on the whole recognizes a number of characteristic Riisager features: the kaleidoscopic treatment of motif and theme, the many unprepared transitions from one key to another, the emphasis on the high register of the violins, the bitonality and the stark clashes of seconds, also in the high register.
Klods Hans (Jack the Dullard) op. 18 is end-dated 17th July 1929 and was given its first performance by the Symphony Orchestra of the Danish Broadcasting Corporation with Launy Grøndahl conducting on the 125th anniversary of the birth of Hans Christian Andersen, 2nd April 1930. As was the case with Overture for Erasmus Montanus, Riisager stressed that this was not programme music: "The overture is intended as a free fantasia over the Danish lad who, straddled over his billy-goat, rushes straight through the ranks of snobbish self-importance and conceited prejudice. The piece thus has no connection with the plot of Hans Christian Andersen's tale." When one listens to Klods Hans it may seem surprising that there is no element of plot description, for the work includes several passages of a distinctly illustrative character. But it is the character element, the idea itself, that Riisager has tried to capture.
Fastelavn (Carnival) op. 20, is dated 10th June 1930 and was given its first performance on 7th March 1932 in a concert organized by the Young Composers' Society in the large hall of the Odd Fellow Concert Hall. The conductor was Peder Gram. The overture is dedicated to "the rogues and all the fun-loving girls of Copenhagen". In a description of the work to be found in the autograph - but which Riisager did not wish to be included in the printed edition - he says: "‘Fastelavn' is the musical expression of the Danish Carnival, which among us still has traces of the primitive wantonness and nonchalant kicking-over-the-traces of the Middle Ages. It is not the carnival of the South, but a Copenhagen street scene from today with the boys' false noses and collection tins, and singing in the yards in Father's inside-out jersey and Mother's worn-out dress, with tilting at barrels and bun-fights. These remarks are not a programme for the piece, only general guidance for an audience which perhaps - and in vain - will expect associations with traditional carnival figures, dancing Columbines and sighing Harlequins." Fastelavn is a kind of tour de force for the orchestra, only interrupted by the middle section where the old Carnival song "Can you guess who I am?" is intoned. The tune, also known from the song "A house lay by the road", is treated highly inventively, and in the repeat of the main section it also plays a role.
Comoedie op. 21, which Riisager finished on 10th November 1930, is another virtuosically conceived piece, and over long stretches the work has the feel of a regular concerto for orchestra; for example in an extended section that begins with a bassoon solo whose melody is taken over and imitated by the woodwinds one by one. After a presentation by the full woodwind and string sections the theme is imitated in the strings in a brief five-part texture. But Riisager makes free with the tradition, interrupts the rigorous structure and introduces a far freer treatment of the theme. Riisager dedicated Comoedie to the conductor and composer Emil Reesen, who was at the head of the Danish Broadcasting Corporation's Symphony Orchestra in the first performance on 1st February 1934.
On 1st June 1925 Riisager completed his First Symphony, which was given the opus number 8. The work, which has remained unprinted, is dedicated to the memory of Riisager's father, who died in 1919. The symphony is in three movements, the first of which is tripartite with a recapitulation. This might lead one to suppose that it is a more or less traditional sonata movement form; but the striking thing about the structure of the first movement is precisely that there is no tonal difference between exposition and recapitulation. The recapitulation has a coda added as well as a few small - but striking - changes in one of the themes from the last thematic section; on the other hand, in a longish passage in the recapitulation, there are switch-overs between the various instrument groups compared with the exposition; for example musical material from the strings has been placed in the woodwinds, which have in turn ceded their material to the strings. That the recapitulation has no resolution of any tonal tension in the exposition means that the movement does not meet the most fundamental ‘requirement' for a sonata movement form. Thus it could possibly be seen as an expression of Riisager's irreverence towards the sonata form principle as a decidedly Germanic form type, resulting in his choice to let purely instrumentational factors constitute one of the most important differences between the two movement sections. In this respect Riisager comes close to the French symphonic practice of the period, where the melodic element and the instrumentation were given high priority, and where the sonata movement form was disliked. After the First World War this anti-Germanic attitude in France was in fact intensified.
Thematic/motivic features play a major role in the symphony. It opens with an ascending four-note trumpet motif which is immediately developed in two phases where the compass is constantly increased. The development of the motif continues throughout the movement, and one thing that must claim our attention is that the main subject of the second movement is presented in the coda in the first movement - as a clear development of the main subject of the first movement, to which it forms a countersubject - -undeniably an atypical disposition! A few bars into the first movement a refinement appears: the beginning of the children's song Ruder Es (Ace of Diamonds) (also known as "Ritsch-ratsch") is introduced in the solo flute. At the end of the work a small fragment of the melody returns in the trumpets, where it appears in ringing minor seconds, which further point back to the intense introduction to the final movement - an introduction that consists of a kind of sound-pattern of repeated minor seconds in the strings, played ff.
The movements of the symphony are also interconnected by the themes. Riisager was presumably well aware that by breaking with certain crucial movement principles in the symphony form and by letting the themes recur in several movements he was closely paralleling the French symphonic tradition. In addition, the urge to simplify the musical texture and structure more rigorously was part of the general developments after the world war, and as such conformed to the anti-Impressionist endeavours of the French composer group known as Les Six.
The symphony was given its first performance at the Tivoli Concert Hall on 17th July 1926 under the baton of Frederik Schnedler-Petersen. The reviews were mixed. In Berlingske Tidende the reviewer made it clear that he had expected an ultra-radical work, but that it was "of a modernism no more harsh than the schooled present-day ear can easily negotiate." The reviewer did think, however, that in places the thematic treatment lacked originality in its dependence on Stravinsky and Puccini. In his in-depth treatment of the symphony in Nationaltidende, Gunnar Hauch recalled the earlier works' "absinthe reminiscences from Montmartre", but considered that in the symphony Riisager was on his way forward. Hauch also noted touches of Stravinsky and Puccini in the work as well as traces of Wagner. "On the other hand, very little Carl Nielsen, upon whom young Danish composers otherwise draw plentifully." Politiken's Hugo Seligmann also stressed Riisager's dissociation from Carl Nielsen: "In his zeal to react against what is current in his native country, he has himself changed his nationality." And Seligmann's judgement of the work was harsh: "When the piece is over, one has come no further and grown no wiser." Quite simply, it lacked thematic sustainability and thematic development.
The reviews show that the symphony was felt to be a strange bird in the Danish music of the day. This is unlikely to have disappointed Riisager. For with his first symphony he had not only achieved a musical test piece in the large form, he had also been able to leave his clear imprint on the content. True, he was working in the most Germanic, tradition-burdened of all orchestral forms, but he had not permitted himself to wear any straitjacket. On the contrary, as we have seen, he flouted several fundamental rules for the structure of the symphony and his intensely personal treatment of the instruments signalled a movement away from German music.
Claus Røllum-Larsen, Ph.D., is senior researcher at the Royal Danish Library